I'm still working on the 4th Flatland essay and will be for some time to come. So I thought I'd post something during the interim.
Two articles caught my eye recently. Both had a similar theme — inevitable inequality. I was startled to read this opening text in 700 years of Western inequality, in one chart (Vox, January 23, 2017).
We tend to think of rising income inequality as a 21st-century problem. A more equal distribution of wealth is normal, and the growing clout of the 1 percent is an anomaly.
The problem is that in the long arc of history, none of that is really true. For centuries, rising inequality has been the norm in the West — and it’s the relative equality of the post–World War era that is the anomaly.
Right! Along these lines, you might review the last section of my essay Moral Failure In Liberalized Market States (DOTE, June 25, 2014). It starts off like this—
It is unfortunate in the United States that political liberals and progressives always take the post-World War II decades as illustrative and exemplary with respect to what they believe is possible in achieving their desired utopia. I have given considerable thought to that historical period, a time when a large, prosperous Middle Class arose in America, for it is in many respects exceptional in human history. I grew up during those decades but have learned since that yearning for their return is a form of progressive nostalgia. We are very unlikely to see the return of the more inclusive moral preferences of the 1950's and 1960's...
The Vox article focuses on the work Guido Alfani, who provides the chart of European inequality over time. Zack Beauchamp, who wrote the article, seems a little lost when he says—
The upshot, if Alfani’s data is right, is that we need to start worrying even more about growing inequality.
Or not. Why do we always have to worry even more about shit we can't do anything about?
It suggests that there’s something about the deep structure of Western economies that tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of a small number of people.
Alfani isn’t sure what that is, as his project is still in very preliminary stages. But his data strongly suggests that something is going on.
You know my view: there are always elites in large, complex human societies. Hierarchy, usually expressed as wealth disparities, is normal. There is nothing special about Western economies.
The second article on inequality comes from Stanford and focuses on the work of Walter Scheidel, who examined the history of peace and economic inequality over the past 10,000 years.
What price do we pay for civilization?
For Walter Scheidel, a professor of history and classics at Stanford, civilization has come at the cost of glaring economic inequality since the Stone Age.
The sole exception, in his account, is widespread violence — wars, pandemics, civil unrest; only violent shocks like these have substantially reduced inequality over the millennia.
“It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time,” said Scheidel, summarizing the thesis of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, his newly published book.
Surveying long stretches of human history, Scheidel said that “the big equalizing moments in history may not have always had the same cause, but they shared one common root: massive and violent disruptions of the established order.”
What can be done? Not much!
Scheidel acknowledges his pessimism about resolving inequality.
That any reputable, successful human being can acknowledge his pessimism is remarkable in and of itself.
“Reversing the trend toward greater concentrations of income, in the United States and across the world, might be, in fact, nearly impossible,” he said.
Among the wide variety of catastrophes that level societies, Scheidel identifies what he calls “four horsemen”: mass mobilization or state warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and plague.
A textbook example of mass mobilization is World War II, a conflict that embroiled many developed countries and, key for Scheidel, “uniformly hugely reduced inequality.” As with Europe and Japan, he said, “in the U.S. there were massive tax increases, state intervention in the economy to support the war effort and increase output, which triggered a redistribution of resources, benefiting workers and harming the interests of the top 1 percent.”
It looks like we need a massive catastrophe to fix our inequality problem (i.e., mass mobilization or state warfare, a transformative revolution, state collapse or plague).
Don't worry, though, I'm sure humanity can get the job done